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CEO of Finishing Resources, Inc

The Finish Line

By Don Piontek

About Don

Don has worked in technical support, sales, engineering, and management during a career in both the commercial offset and digital finishing sectors. He is the North American representative for IBIS Bindery Systems, Ltd. of The United Kingdom.

Will Master Bookbinder Craft Survive?

I won't lie. I spent the majority of my time in long-run commercial bindery and digital finishing. But, I have had opportunities to see first-hand many "craft" book binderies that produced exquisite, valuable hard cover products.

For many years, I had no clue as to what it took to produce a high-quality law book, Bible or museum-quality book. But I became gradually exposed to this world in trips to boutique finishing operations and through my association with the Hard Cover Binders Association (which is now part of the Book Manufacturing Institute). An enormous font of knowledge is Professor Emeritus Werner Rebsamen, who was himself a master bookbinder.

Becoming a "master" bookbinder requires years of apprenticeship and training, many times using tools that have remained the same since the 16th Century! The number of separate operations employed in making these products is mind-boggling compared to turning out magazines like Newsweek or People.

Let's take a brief tour. First, the papers used are going to be high-quality (and expensive). Instead of adhesive binding, the book block signatures are going to be sewn, typically with "Smyth" sewing, a technique developed in the 1870s and still used widely today. Unlike many hard covers, the back of the block is going to be rounded, which according to Rebsamen, reduces the stress on the signatures when the book is repeatedly opened. The rounding process used to be done by craftsmen using special hammers. But it's a machine process these days (as is most sewing).

The case is even more complex. Special board material may be used, and instead of paper, expensive cloth, linen or leather will be used to make the case. Wait, we're only getting started! Now we have to apply special touches to the case. The case may be embossed, it may need gold foil stamping. There aren't many machine vendors that make these systems. There's only ONE that I know of that manufactures personalized foil stamping systems. Antiquing is another process that gives the case an "aged" look. When I saw this being done at Taylor Corp. (now Balfour) in Houston many years ago, it was 100 percent manual, with an operator hand-rubbing the case with black ink.

How about edge gilding? Many products have the edges of the pages gilded. There's one Swiss firm that makes these and a few Chinese ones. Then there's special buckles, pockets and closures; ribbon inserting in the book block and head and tail bands. The most unique system I've ever seen cut "thumb" indexes into dictionary book blocks at the old Rand-McNally book plant in Versailles, KY.

The book products I'm describing cannot be found for $24.95 at Barnes & Noble. They may cost hundreds of dollars or even more. The question is, how long will this craftsmanship survive in the age of Facebook and Instagram? How many young people will choose to learn the arts and techniques needed to make these lifetime-lasting, beautiful products? Let's hope they'll be in demand well into the future!


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